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If the job that laid me off wants to bring me back, can I decline and still collect unemployment?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately like this one:

I’ve been laid off for the past three weeks, and now my employer has asked me to return. Legally, do I have to accept? And if I don’t accept, will that give me a problem filling for unemployment?

Yes, the rules on unemployment benefits require you to accept if the job you were laid off from offers you the job back. You can decline to return if you want, but you’d lose your eligibility for unemployment.

Unemployment insurance (UI) isn’t there to pad your departure-by-choice from a job you no longer want. It’s an emergency safety net to help keep you afloat if you lose your job. If the job comes back (as many jobs will be doing in these days of temporary layoffs), legally you can’t turn it down and continue collecting benefits just because you prefer your current situation.

I’m getting this same question from people who got laid off, began collecting UI, and have now been offered their old job back at their old salary — which is less than what they’re making through UI because of the new $600/week federal supplement. But it’s the same thing — if they turn down the offer to return to the old job, they’ll lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits.

In general when you’re collecting UI, you’ll lose your eligibility if you turn down suitable work. Different states define “suitable work” differently, but generally it means a job that offers pay comparable to what you’ve earned recently and work that corresponds to your education level and previous work experience. The job you held right before filling for UI is going to qualify as suitable.

I checked in with the UI worker who offered advice here last month to confirm all this and she wrote:

“Yes, you are correct — if someone refuses suitable work, then they will be denied benefits. However, if they do not report that they were offered work, then UI may not know about it and they may still be able to collect benefits. However, employers can, and should, report to UI that they offered work to these (former) employees, and UI will catch it at that time. If it turns out that a claimant falsified their claim (by not reporting an offer of work), it could be considered fraud, and not only would they need to pay back the payments they shouldn’t have gotten, but there could be additional fees and penalties they would be required to pay as well.

So theoretically, claimants COULD get away with it (I’m sure some will), but it’s certainly risky. … UI isn’t meant to replace your income, or to be your consistent source of income. It’s meant to help you get by until you can find work. I know these are unprecedented times, but that should still be the goal.”
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